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Islamic Radicalism Has Centuries-Old Roots

BY Gabriel Meyer

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Western media's portrayals often miss key distinctions among movements

“The worst of men is he who falls short of his yesterdays,” wrote the world-weary 12th-century Muslim philologist al-Hariri.

It's an apt description of the predicament of modern Islam, caught between the glories of its past and its uneasy, sometimes violent struggle with two centuries of an all—but triumphant modernity.

This, coupled with the fact that a century-old tradition of Arab nationalist secularity—the attempt, usually inspired by Arab Christian thinkers, to construct a non-Islamic polity for the region—has been politically bankrupt for a generation. The torchbearers of that once proud legacy are Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Syria's Hafez al-Assad, both members of the secularist Ba'ath, or “Resurrection” Party.

More than any other single factor, this sense of wounded dignity, thwarted expectations, and even “impotent envy,” as a Middle East observer once put it, fuels the many and varied movements that Western media tend to lump under the label “Islamic fundamentalism.”

The term itself derives from press coverage of the 1978 Iranian revolution in which, to the dismay of most Americans, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the pro-Western regime of the Shah of Iran and instituted an Islamic republic. But since the early years of that decade, Western observers had warned of a thunderstorm brewing in the form of a resurgent militant Islam in countries from Morocco to the Philippines. The “hostage” crises of the late ‘70s and ’80s in which American embassy personnel, journalists, academics and aid workers were held as bargaining chips in war-torn Lebanon and Iran sealed the imagery in most Western minds.

As Godfrey Jansen describes it in his 1979 study, Militant Islam: “The image that the Western observer … take[s] away … is one of … strange, bearded men with burning eyes, hieratic figures in robes and turbans….”

Such images, of course, do an injustice to the majority of the world's Muslims, including the majority of religiously observant ones. Even militant Islam (a better term than “fundamental-ist”) is a many-sided phenomenon. And, far from being something new, it's as old as Islam itself. As last week's article indicated, Mohammed left behind the outlines of a way of life when he died in 632. That way of life encompassed not only religious practices, but principles of state and government.

Prophetic Succession

Two problems, however, emerged nearly as soon as the prophet had left the stage. The needs of the vast Muslim empire that came into being within a generation of his death soon rendered the governmental principles elaborated in the Medinan surahs (or chapters) of the Koran inadequate. In a process that took centuries, the recollections of his first followers were collated in the Hadith (traditions), along with learned attempts to find, or fabricate, prophetic backing for the ever-growing body of Islamic law. The whole of this vast literature is called the Sunnah (the trodden path).

The problem of Mohammed's successor, however, proved an even more serious challenge. Many of the divisions that continue to plague Islam and that, in some cases, fuel today's militant movement, flow in the wake of the tragedies which befell the umma, or community, in its “golden age,” even as its armies swept over lands from the Mediterranean to the borders of India.

Of the first four rulers to succeed the prophet, the so-called khalifah al-rashidun (the right-guided caliphs), Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali, whose reigns lasted from 632 to 661, two were assassinated and one was cut down by his enemies in his home while reading the Koran. (The title “caliph” means “deputy” of the prophet.)

With the massacre of Hussein, Ali's son, in 680, a second civil war ensued that did not end until a decade later. In the meantime, the Ummayid dynasty had emerged in Damsacus (661-750) with a far more secular profile (the founder, Mu'awiya, referred to himself, significantly, not as a “caliph, ”but as malik, or “king”).

The main result of the bloody “golden age” was that Islam split into its two major groups, the majority Sunni (“orthodox,” roughly 90%) and the Shi'ah (or “sectarian,” 9%, mostly in Iran, but with significant minorities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman). The Ibadiyya are another small, but important grouping, living mostly in Oman.

Opposing Movements

While there were many causes for the two civil wars that sundered Islamic unity in the 30 years after the prophet's death, the crisis of the succession tops the list.

The Sunni majority took a largely pragmatic view. Basing their approach to the crisis on the Koran and the Hadiths, they laid stress on the concept of the “consensus of the community.”

For the Shi'a, however, it was a strictly dynastic matter. Only Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, represented the legitimate line of succession. Anything less was betrayal. Beyond that, they viewed the caliph merely as a secular head of state and believed that the community should be led by the imam (“model,” “exemplar”), a charismatic, semi-divine leader who would act as a mediator between heaven and earth. (Orthodox Muslim scholars point out that there may be pre-Islamic Persian elements in aspects of the Shi'a creed.)

As for the Ibadiyya, they believe that anyone can become head of the Muslim community, provided such a person possesses the necessary qualifications.

There were other differences as well. The Shi'a, unlike their Sunni counterparts, viewed Islam as a cause betrayed, a force arrayed against a hostile world, and cultivated a devotion to suffering and to martyrdom in imitation of the murdered caliph-saints Ali and Hussein. Whereas the Sunni took, and take, what might be called a developmental approach to Islamic life, the Shi'a hearkened back to a lost “golden age” of purity and conquest that had been forfeited by Muslims due to infidelity and compromise.

Middle Eastern historian Bernard Lewis sums it up this way: “[The Shi'a] appealed with great success to the discontented masses … and became essentially the expression in religious terms of opposition to the state and the established order….”

Not surprisingly, Shi'ism gave rise to many militant movements in Islam as well as to a number of heretical Islamic offshoots—the Druze and the Alawites, for example. The tenor of some of these groups may be suggested by the fact that the English word “assassin” is derived from a Shi'a—inspired movement, the Isma'ilis.

Catholic Crusaders exploited such divisions when they invaded the Middle East in 1099 and established Christian fiefdoms along the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard. However, a century later Sunni forces succeeded both in achieving religious hegemony over their sectarian rivals and in expelling the last Crusader knights from Acre in 1299.

Nevertheless, the Arab caliphate perished under the Mongol onslaught in 1258, never to return. (Sherif Hussein, T.E. Lawrence's friend, the king of Hejaz, proclaimed himself caliph in 1916, to little effect.) The non-Arabs Seljuk Turks, the Ottomans, launched their colorful bid for leadership of the Islamic world at the end of the 14th century, including a stab at a sort of caliphate that fooled no one and ended with a whimper in 1924.

Meanwhile, Muslim intellectuals, increasingly disillusioned with the Ottoman model, pondered what a truly Islamic state might look like.

The very first organized manifestation of what might be called militant or revolutionary Islam in modern times started in what is today Saudi Arabia. The movement, which took the peninsula by storm, arose just before Napoleon landed his troops in Egypt in 1798-an act that signaled renewed Western involvement in the region's affairs. Mohammed ibn Abdel-Wahab (1703-1787) won the enthusiastic support of tribal chieftains in their Arabian peninsula by advocating a stern program of reform that would return to the policies of the first Islamic generation, opposing all that had been added to the Muslim faith since then.

Wahabism pitted itself firmly against mysticism, the veneration of Islamic saints, the orthodox schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and even the cult of Mohammed as the perfect man. The Wahabi revolt went so far as to raid and destroy the tombs of Islamic heroes.

While a watered-down Wahabism is the state religion of Saudi Arabia today, the themes raised by the 200-year-old revolt continue to have wider resonances in the region and in Islam as a whole—especially the theme of a return to a pristine form of Islam, and to a political life lived entirely on the basis of shari'a, traditional Islamic law. There are very few modern Islamic movements whose program would not rest on those two goals.

But the grandfather of many of the current Islamic movements hails from Egypt where Hassan el-Banna, a schoolteacher, formed the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikwan, in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia in 1928.

The Ikwan boasts more than 100,000 members in Egypt, a country of 60 million, in addition to a vast network of sympathizers—even though the organization has been officially outlawed since 1954. (Since the mid-1980s, the Brotherhood has been permitted to publish political ads and to field candidates in conjunction with the Socialist Labor Party.)

The Ikwan, envisioned a revived Islamic state from the Nile to the Mediterranean and fought the further importation of Western law, political thought, and mores into the Arab world.

Hunted and persecuted by various Arab regimes, they eventually turned to waging urban guerrilla warfare. Banna himself was assassinated in 1949, and his organization proscribed in the aftermath of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers' 1952 coup d'etat against Egyptian King Farrouk.

In recent years, the Ikwan professes to pursue its program by nonviolent means.

The same does not hold true for many of its stepchildren: Hamas, the Syrian-based Islamic Holy War, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman's Islamic Group, Lebanon's Iranian-financed Hezbollah, and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria.

Islamic ‘Radicalism’

Two seminal events in the 1960s and '70s set off an explosion of Islamic radicalism through out the Islamic world that continues to reverberate in our world: the 1967 Middle East War, and the Iranian revolution of 1978.

As Jansen writes of the 1967 War between Israel and the Arab states: “The defeat was so complete that it revealed the weakness not just of the Arab military machine but of the whole of Arab society, which is an Islamic society…. [What it showed] was that none of the various political systems the Muslim states had adopted seemed to work.”

The result of the setbacks was that more people looked to Islam for solutions, and the Islam they adopted became more militant. The successful rout of a pro-Western, though non-Arab, Middle Eastern regime in the 1978 Iranian revolution only encouraged the trend.

But, as it has turned out, in the nearly 20 years since the Iranian revolution, neither Western fears nor Islamic hopes, for the most part, have been realized.

For those hoping that militant Islam, with its shari'a-based economies and “Islamic” banks and morals police, would provide the path to the future, the landscape is bleaker than it used to be. Iran's experiment looks increasingly fragile. Sudan's attempt to create an Islamic state governed by shari'a has unleashed a brutal civil war that shows few signs of ending. And the Islamic Salvation Front has helped turn Algeria into a blood bath.

Destination Unknown

On the other hand, the Middle East has not been overrun by Islamic revolutionary movements. Secular states like Turkey, so far, have managed to turn back the challenge of Islamic-based political parties. Jordan has skillfully insured the participation of Islamic parties in its political process without losing its balance. And newly self-governing Palestinians, for all the political challenges they face, are not embracing the blueprint of their own Islamic radicals.

Perhaps the wisest thing that can be said at the end of this, one of Islam's most vibrant and difficult centuries, was said recently by historian Bernard Lewis:

“Only this much can be said,” Lewis wrote in a recent assessment of Iran's Islamic experiment, “that what is in progress is producing vast, deep, and irreversible changes, and that the forces that are causing these changes are not yet spent and that their destination is still unknown.”

Next week: Islam & Catholic Church

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.

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